“And that’s going to be, perhaps, the end of the fight. It’ll take some courage for Mike to get up from that shot. He’s out! Lennox Lewis knocks out Mike Tyson and banishes him from the upper stratosphere of the Heavyweight division!”
As Jim Lampley called the action in June of 2002, Lennox Lewis retained his Heavyweight crown. The highly anticipated showdown between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis was finally on. The event outlived the hype, and Lewis dominated Tyson, knocking the former champion down and out in the eighth round.
There was a rematch clause in the Lewis-Tyson contract. A date had been both identified and scheduled for June 21, 2003 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.
As so often happens in boxing, things changed quickly.
The Heavyweight landscape had dramatically changed in the previous 12 months. Lewis was riding high, pummeling the once recognized “baddest man on the planet.” Lewis had virtually defeated every man he had ever faced, avenging losses to Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall, evening the score after the highly controversial draw to Evander Holyfield, and beating up the likes of Tyrell Biggs, Razor Ruddock, David Tua, Andrew Golata and Michael Grant.
For all intents and purposes, Lewis was the man in the heavyweight division. Being the man, however, didn’t make him popular to many boxing fans in the United States.
The rematch clause went by the proverbial wayside as Tyson claimed he wasn’t ready to face Lewis. The date in June, however, remained penciled in at The Staples Center. In stepped Kirk Johnson. Many boxing fans yawned and the World Boxing Council would not sanction the fight.
Then, as many were still yawning, lightning struck as Johnson pulled out of the fight citing a torn chest muscle suffered in training. Questions were abound as there was no true, clear cut number one contender in the division. Lewis, who was already scheduled to fight Vitali Klitschko in December, made the Klitschko camp an offer to step in for the injured Johnson.
Already in training and on the June 21 undercard, Klitschko gladly stepped in. The WBC now elected to sanction the fight as a title match. More importantly, boxing fans recognized that the Ring and the Lineal Heavyweight titles were now on the line.
At 31 years of age, the untested and awkward Klitschko (32-1, 31 KOs) was a questionable talent. Standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall, he had not beaten any “world class” opponents. He had however, defeated some recognizable names like Larry Donald, Vaughn Bean, and Jose Ribalta. The man known as “Dr. Ironfist” had been highly criticized for his only loss, quitting on his stool due to a shoulder injury against Chris Byrd in the ninth round. He had dominated most of the action up to the moment the fight ended.
Many circles labeled the 248 pound Klitschko a quitter. Add that to his brother Wladimir’s shocking knockout loss to Corey Sanders in Germany just three months prior, the press now labeled Vitali’s efforts against Lewis as fighting for the family name, for family honor. Lewis openly questioned Klitschko’s heart, calling him a quitter. Vitali countered advising he had torn his rotator cuff in the fourth round and fought several rounds in excruciating pain.
The night of the fight launched the first Heavyweight fight in LA in 30 years, when Muhammad Ali won a split decision over Ken Norton. HBO carried the fight live and the Staples Center had sold out. Ringside was stacked with the notable and recognizable attendees like Sylvester Stallone, John Cusak, Gary Shandling and Lionel Ritchie.
Wearing all black with gold trim, Klitschko, a 4-1 underdog, entered the ring first to the strains of The Eagles “Hotel California”. Many fans likened him to that of fictional character, Ivan Drago. Larry Merchant summed up his style, “He’s a big man that moves like a piece of construction equipment.” Accompanied by his brother, he entered the ring to a raucous ovation.
Next came the champion wearing all white, trimmed with red. The 37-year-old Lewis, at 6 feet, 5 inches tall weighed in at a career heavy 256 pounds. Incredibly, we were looking at over 13 feet and over 500 pounds of Heavyweights.
Led by Hall of Fame trainer Emmanuel Steward, Lewis was looking to become the third oldest Heavyweight to defend his crown, adding his name to a short list that included George Foreman (46) and the great Jersey Joe Walcott (38).
After Michael Buffers introductions and referee Dr. Lou Moret’s instructions, the two combatants engaged in extraordinarily long, cold stares.
Just before the opening bell sounded, Larry Merchant opined, “This event was upgraded from business class to first class when Klitschko became part of it.”
Round 1 was underway and the two fighters styles looked much like that of John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett. Both men jabbed and seemed to jockey for control of the action. Each seemed to try to jab and throw power right hands behind it. As both fighters began to get warmed up, Klitschko landed a right hand bomb, Lewis countered with an uppercut to end the first.
As the second round began, Lewis tried to jab Klitschko. Dr. Ironfist ripped Lewis with a right hand just over a minute into the round. An animated Lampley observed, “Big left hand by Klitschko! Lewis wobbled again!”
Lewis, stumbling, fought back. Merchant was forced to holler over the roar of the crowd, “This is Gatti-Ward on the highest scale!”
Lampley concurred, “Vitali Klitschko is roughing Lennox Lewis up!” As Klitschko fired combinations, Lewis elected to bomb wild punches one at a time.” Lewis staggered back to his corner to end the second and had a nasty welt forming under his left eye.
Round 3 became even more dramatic. It began the same way as the second ended, both men bombing away. Foreman recognized that Klitschko now had blood streaming down the side of his face as there was a nasty gash over his left eye, “Boy that cut is bad! That cut is bad!”
As Klitschko landed four jabs in succession, an exasperated Merchant added, “There has never been a Heavyweight championship between big men with this kind of intense action!” Lewis’ legs began to steady and gave every bit as good as he was getting.
The round ended, both fighters suffering significant damage. Two top flight cut men went to work, Joe Souza in Klitschko’s corner and Al Gavin in the Lewis corner.
“Round 4 begins! All-out war! Harold letterman, how do you have it? Don’t take long Harold!” On Lampley’s queue, Harold Letterman quickly told viewers that he had it two rounds to one in favor of Klitschko.
The two went head-to-head, wasting no time to begin the fourth. As Klitschko leaned down, Lewis laid on his back and both men crashed to the canvas. Klitschko appeared to want to kick at Lewis, who paused, and then in an act of sportsmanship extended his hand and pulled Klitschko off the mat.
After the fourth round, Steward told Lewis, “One thing, you’re pushing him all the time now. Keep pushing your weight on him, all while you’re inside clinching.”
As we entered Round 5, Lewis began landing monstrous uppercuts and left hooks. Blood spilling down his face, Klitschko punched back, refusing to give in, refusing to take a backward step. Lewis pounded Klitschko to the body with eight unanswered right hands just over one minute into the round.
Klitschko immediately came back and powered Lewis into the ropes with a left hook and straight right hands. Foreman commented, “One good right hand will put Lewis on the canvas.”
In between rounds, Souza worked feverishly on the gouge over Klitschko’s eye. Ring doctors intensely looked on.
As Round 6 began, Klitschko jabbed and dropped solid right hands. Lewis countered with a vicious right uppercut causing the ringside crowd to groan, as if to cry out in awe. Klitschko continued to press forward, pushing Lewis back and driving him into the ropes. Lewis seemed to try to keep his balance and hold on. He looked weak in the knees as the round climaxed.
Seconds after the bell, Lampley howled, “They’re stopping the fight! They’re stopping the fight!”
Klitschko circled the ring and cried out, “No! No! No!” Moret, on the advice of the ring doctor, had halted the action because of, as Lampley explained, “The tremendous damage to his left eye. Grotesque.”
Lewis had won this drama via TKO.
As Lewis stood calmly in his corner and smiled, Klitschko walked around the ring, hands raised above his head, and the crown at the Staples Center stood and applauded. As both Lampley put it, “Isn’t it fair to say tonight, Lewis wins the fight, Klitschko won the event?”
Merchant responded, “Yes it is. He has restored the name of the Klitschko’s.”
At the time of the stoppage, Klitschko was ahead on all three scorecards.
After the fight, negotiations for a December 6 rematch immediately began. Those negotiations soon collapsed and Johnson resurfaced to face Klitschko in a WBC elimination bout. Klitschko made quick work of Johnson and scored a second-round TKO win. He was now the mandatory challenger for Lewis’ crown.
In January 2004, the WBC announced that it would strip Lewis of his title if he allowed March deadline to sign for a rematch with Klitschko pass.
Lewis retired shortly thereafter leaving many with a sense of unfinished business.
Header painting by John Murawski